/ 11 October 2019

Teens feel the heat of climate change

Climate change
Climate change



A Wits scientist has identified how climate change affects the capacity of adolescents to learn equitably in different environments.

Associate Professor Matthew Chersich, in the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (Wits RHI), published an editorial in the South African Medical Journal last month.

Climate change and adolescence in South Africa: The role of youth activism and the health sector in safeguarding adolescents’ health and education lays out the critical risks of climate change on the youth of today.

It provides evidence of the danger that greenhouses gases and the onslaught of emissions pose to educational performance. In addition, it proposes interventions and calls for youth activists to mitigate the effects of climate change. It also proposes what leaders can do to act.

“As a start, ‘warning labels’ should be added to carbon-intensive products like red meat and imported fruit, just like we warn people of the harms of tobacco and alcohol. If the government won’t do something simple like that, how can we expect them to close Sasol?” says Chersich.

The most important findings in the editorial include “sick building syndrome” and the impact of climate change on water and sanitation, the impact of heat on girls and their mental health, and the environmental impact on the 20% of children engaged in economic activity.

Scholars, studies, and ‘sick building syndrome’

Older generations are not as much at risk of exposure to the effects of climate change. Today’s youth will experience the worst effects of climate change in the future. The indirect impacts of climate change, more specifically “sick building syndrome”, directly negatively affect academic performance.

Poor ventilation, increased temperatures, levels of carbon dioxide and the forced need to close windows in highly polluted areas result in decreased capacity to learn, a decrease in school attendance and increased rates of asthma attacks — “sick building syndrome” is a consequent increasing risk for these learners.

Higher temperatures negatively affect educational performance by total cumulative heat exposure over the academic year. Conversely, learners in more affluent areas have access to better ventilation, cooler buildings and greater academic support.

“People don’t appreciate that climate change threatens education in South Africa. Grade 12s will write final exams in 42 degrees in their shipping container classrooms — actually, it’s already happening! If we care about pass rates, we must act now,” says Chersich.

Girls, child labourers, and water

Girls have higher rates of obesity, which compromises their capacity to regulate their internal temperature. This has a negative influence on mental health and mortality in such conditions. In addition, approximately 20% of children between the ages of seven and 17 are engaged in economic activity. These children work in extreme and humid conditions, which put them at risk of dehydration and heat stress.

The effect of climate change on water quality, availability and water security is tangible. Droughts threaten water security; floods contaminate water. A lack of sanitation means an increase in water and foodborne infections.

Help the kids to help themselves

Proposed interventions include the provision of cool water during classes, applying damp clothes to bodies and improved ventilation. Schools can provide sandals instead of closed school shoes, adapt school uniforms to the heat, change lesson times to avoid hotter weather during the day, and plant trees to provide shade. A cooling room can provide additional respite from the heat.

According to Chersich, in the current political and international arena of climate change volatility and denialism, South African youth need to take the initiative and stand up against the poor management of climate change in the country.

“Youth activism is a powerful tool and can promote the safeguarding of schools against the health and education impact of heat, as well as increased awareness of climate change. If we do not act, the current generation will face the full force of emissions in time.”